As part of the Brisbane Writers Festival over the weekend, I sat in on a session with Aussie authors Patrick Holland, Bronwyn Parry and Chloe Hooper. Chaired by fabulous local Brisbane author Trent Jamieson, the “It’s a Thrill” session looked at these three very different authors with their three very different books and highlighted a constant theme throughout the books–isolation. Isolation is not an unfamiliar concept in Australia. Once you look beyond the capital cities of each state, our population is sparsely located over a massive land area. In fact, Australia has approximately 2.66 people per square kilometre (km²), whereas the UK has 248.25 people per km² and the USA has 31.27 people per km². Another way of looking at it is that New York City (just the city) holds over one-third of the Australian population in 0.00010205% of our land mass (790km² vs 7,741,000km²). Holland, Parry and Hooper have dealt with isolation in different ways, and I decided to read Hooper’s The Engagement–a haunting, gothic psychological thriller that uncovers the dark consequences of game playing between two people on an uneven playing field.
Liese Campbell lives a life that will be relatable for many of us (myself, thankfully, not included). Liese has debt, a lot of it, most of which has accumulated from a compulsive shopping habit. Prior to the financial crisis, Liese worked as an interior architect in London and the debts were manageable. She was retrenched during the crisis and, with mounting debts, fled to Melbourne to work at her uncle’s real estate agency and sell the kind of charmless apartments she used to design. It is through this that Liese meets Alexander Colquhoun, heir of a pastoral dynasty in Western Victoria, who is on the hunt for an inner-city apartment. In an act as impulsive as her shopping habits, Liese seduces Alexander. Hooper is particularly coy when describing what it is about Alexander that attracted Liese; readers are required to fill in the gaps. Whatever the cause, Alexander responded to Liese’s advances and, once their encounter was over, he attempted to pay Liese for her *ahem* professional expertise. Rather than correcting his mistake, Liese accepts.
Liese and Alexander meet many more times during the months that follow, always in someone else’s apartment. The surroundings begin to influence Liese’s tales of her ‘occupation’, and with each encounter with Alexander, her fictional life becomes alive and vivid. At first, the unsuspecting Alexander eats it up. But as his attitude towards Liese begins to shift and becomes more affectionate, Liese decides that enough is enough and announces a plan to return to the UK. The allure of one last payment before she leaves is too strong, and Liese finds herself whisked away from suburban Melbourne by Alexander to his home in the isolated wilderness of the Grampians, Western Victoria. What would have been an idyllic farewell to Australia and ‘prostitution’ turns to something far more sinister as Liese begins to pull back Alexander’s complex layers. Who is he and why has he brought her out here? And why, when Liese awakens to find all the doors locked, does she wish someone knew where she was?
When I reviewed The Woman in Black earlier this year, I recalled with affection (astonishingly) a high school English assignment on gothic techniques. The Brontë sisters were masters of the gothic craft, and Hooper comfortably employs gothic elements to enhance The Engagement’s creepy tone. The Grampians provide the perfect backdrop to inspire feelings of isolation and remoteness, and Alexander’s gigantic mansion harbours many secrets of its own, including many locked doors and dark, dusty rooms. His beautiful stately home has an overgrown and dilapidated garden, which sets the scene for one of the book’s more chilling scenes. And the sheer absence of any other human drills home just how alone Liese is. That Hooper spent time in stately mansions while writing The Engagement is made evident in her authentic description of the land and of the feelings of solitude experienced by Liese.
At the very heart of The Engagement is a meditation on the ramifications of psychological game playing between two romantically involved people. On one hand we have Liese who is gallivanting around in the role of a prostitute, carelessly not considering the ramifications of her actions. And on the other is Alexander, whose feelings grow and develop for a woman who is not his equal in class or wealth–which appears to be difficult for him to reconcile. When these two personalities clash, Hooper sets us up with a brilliant psychological thriller that will please fans of Gone Girl and Before I go to Sleep. All three novels deal with the murky grey area that arises when one or both halves of a couple keep secrets. All three novels will chill you to the bone as the darkest recesses of human nature are revealed. All three novels come from different countries, and Hooper is doing Australia proud. Very proud indeed.